This dark horse deserves a closer look
The Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls pondered a weighty matter: What should the state’s official snack be?
Ice cream, said Steve Grossman. Don Berwick agreed.
Apples, offered cautious Martha Coakley.
“A cold Sam Adams beer,” chimed in Joe Avellone. “That’s a snack, isn’t it?”
His quip brought a refreshing liquid laugh in this week’s Globe Opinion Debate. Indeed, Avellone and homeland security expert (and former Globe columnist) Juliette Kayyem provided much of the forum’s energy and humor.
Avellone offered a sharp critique of the Democratic Party’s rule that candidates must get 15 percent of convention delegates, and on the first vote, to earn a spot on the primary ballot. That rule may doom several candidacies next Saturday, before many voters have even tuned in.
And when Berwick cited his details-at-a-later-date promise to move Massachusetts to a single-payer health care system, Avellone, the former operations chief at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, pounced.
“That means a state takeover of the health care system, which would fire probably 20,000 people who are employed today,” he said.
He wouldn’t take over the hospitals, Berwick noted after the debate, but yes, his plan probably would spell changes for the insurance carriers, which employ between 8,000 and 9,000 here. (The same issue sparked a spirited riposte from Kayyem, who aptly summarized the tug-of-war between Berwick and Grossman for single-payer cred this way: Berwick would appoint a commission, Grossman would lead a conversation, but neither has anything resembling a plan.)
Avellone, like Kayyem, hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves in this race. That’s partly because pre-convention campaigning focuses more on courting delegates than speaking broadly to voters, partly because coverage at this stage tends to be driven by where candidates stand in the polls and whether they seem likely to survive the convention.
Neither works in Avellone’s favor. And yet, he’s an accomplished person. A former surgeon, Wellesley selectman, and lieutenant in the Navy Reserves, he spent several years as operational chief at the state’s largest insurer and, until this campaign, was a senior vice president at Parexel International, a biopharmeceutical firm, where he oversaw 10,000 employees.
During a debate discussion of the state’s frustrating experience trying to set up a health insurance exchange, Avellone, 65, underscored the importance of management skills. Although he credited Governor Deval Patrick with a “bold vision,” he noted that the governor “wasn’t a large-scale manager” and said that with better management, the initial website failure and other recent problems in state government could have been avoided.
“I have run large organizations,” he said. “That’s what I think I can bring to the government.”
One distinction he’s trying to draw with his Democratic rivals is on taxes. Alone among them, Avellone opposes indexing the gas tax to inflation. He’s also against raising broad-based taxes, something most of the others have signaled they’d consider if more revenue was needed.
But what if another fiscal crisis comes and presents a choice of raising taxes or slashing vital programs? “That’s why I don’t take a pledge,” he replies. Translation: This distinction is a matter of degree.
Avellone wants pre-K for low-income students, a longer day in underperforming districts, state and community college programs coordinated with employers’ needs, and business-incubation centers in the gateway cities.
He sums up his candidacy this way: “I’m the moderate — the only moderate on the Democratic side.” Niche marketing? Maybe. Still, in a field where it can be daunting task to wring a straight answer from the platitudinous top tier, it’s refreshing to talk to a candidate with less propensity for palaver.
Refreshing as, at the end of a hot summer day, that first, um, snack of cold beer.